Online ‘Preschool’ Learning Brings Benefits, Challenges

online preschool

In addition to the continuing discussion over the relative merits of the academic focused curriculum vs. the whole-child curriculum for preschoolers, there also is also discussion of the role online preschool programs can play with preschool-aged children.

Some advocates for online programs argue that in communities where there are no pre-k options, or where families either cannot afford preschool or live too far from brick-and-mortar centers, online programs can offer at least some exposure to academic skills. These programs, which can include tech offerings and training for parents or caregivers, offers follow-up support, too. Many of the for-profit online preschool programs sell access to their programs on a subscription basis, with additional costs for supplemental materials.

However, online preschool has its critics as well. In a Hechinger Report article—pointedly titled “Experts call for an end to online preschool programs”—dozens of educators, experts and advocates express their concern that these programs are little more than marketing schemes “and may actually do more harm than good.”

“It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Children at that age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and caring teachers … none of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”

The experts’ statement, released jointly by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and another advocacy group, Defending the Early Years, warns of the dangers of relying on these programs for kindergarten preparation. They say that online programs are not a substitute for in-class experience.

All of our knowledge about human development demonstrates that children learn best through exploratory, creative play and relationships with caring adults. As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, “Higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.” By contrast, there is virtually no evidence showing that online preschool improves outcomes for kids.

In an accompanying release, one expert, Diana Levin, Professor of Early Childhood Education at Boston University’s Wheelock College, explains that “Online ‘preschool’ lacks the concrete, hands-on social, emotional and intellectual educational components that are essential for quality learning in the early years.” In a discussion of online preschool programs, Shannon Riley-Ayers of the National Institute for Early Education Research told the PBS News Hour report that while the programs may improve children’s “narrow skills,” like knowing the alphabet or color names, “when it comes to more complex skills and non-academic concepts, like self-regulation, oral language, and self-awareness, they fall short.”

Moreover, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is concerned with the programs’ reliance on the child’s screen interaction, which could easily come at the expense of parental involvement. “Extended time on screens diminishes time spent on essential early learning experiences such as lap-reading, creative play, and healthy interactions with adults, and is linked with behavior problems, sleep deprivation, obesity, and delays in social-emotional development.”

Ultimately, parents and educators must decide whether to use online preschool programs or not; however, given the questions surrounding these programs, families considering these programs should do as much independent research as possible to ensure that, first, the program encourages and supports parental involvement in the learning process; second, avoids excessive exposure to phone, tablet and computer screens; and third, provides verifiable benefits to the child.

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